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  • Adaptive Audio: A Beginner's Guide to Making Sounds for Video Games

    [01.27.09]
    - Dan Carter and Michael Worth

  • Title Box: Adaptive AudioLayering
    An important part of sound creation is the concept of layering. One audio file does not have to represent an entire sound effect. For example, in Jurassic Park, the T. rex roar used was a blend of elephant, lion, alligator, and a couple of other animal sounds. As a game example, when we designed one of the laser power-ups in Fittest, we used two shotgun blasts mixed together to handle the beginning of the laser sound, then a sampled laser mixed with an analog synth to handle the "pyew" decay of the sound.

    Audio designers build sounds in this way using a multi-track digital audio workstation (DAW), which allows them to mix and equalize (EQ) multiple sound files together. Ambiences almost have to be created this way. A city ambience might be three layered ambient sounds, people walking and talking, traffic, and some industrial hums, for example. The summation of layered sounds gives the fullness that audio designers are looking to achieve in their sound effects.

    For an excellent example of layered ambiences, see Brad Meyer's "Sound Concepting: Selling the Game, Creating its Auditory Style" (Gamasutra.com, December 16, 2008) about creating the sound design in Spider-Man: Web of Shadows.

    Not every sound effect requires layering. Many sounds are represented by just one audio file, and there are several ways to acquire those sounds. One option is to use synthesizers to create those sounds. This works especially well for alien sounds. There's nothing better than a top-end synth to make a growly, indistinct, crackling effect to represent alien mind control. If the sound is more natural, another option is to record it, either in a studio or in the field, using a portable hard disk recorder. Another option is to purchase top-notch samples of audio through any number of sound effect companies and web sites.

    For student audio designers and other beginners, we highly recommend purchasing audio files. It's easier, cheaper, and less risky (both in terms of taking chances with the game and personal safety) to pay $2 for a shotgun blast than to try to record one -- trust us on this!

    Qualities of Great Game Sounds
    After the raw sounds have been created or collected, they need to clean up and produced. The most important things to know about the final sounds are the following two things: they should be crystal clear sonic impact, and they should require as little memory space as possible.

    Sounds should be as short as possible, too, while still having the emotional impact necessary to enhance the gameplay. Audio designers use effects such as compression and limiting to make their sounds both more uniform and louder. Sound effects tend to be pretty loud and "shiny," and this fits the aesthetic of a great game. The goal is for a game's sound effects to emotionally influence and excite the player, and clean, crisp, and loud sound effects are a strong step in the right direction. For a great example of clean sound design, listen to the phenomenal audio in BioShock.

    Finally, sound designers use a two-track audio editing program to trim off any unused portion of the audio file. Every tenth of a second shaved off saves memory, and being nice to game programmers by saving them space is a tenet of being a successful game audio designer.

     Game Music
    Where sound design in games shapes the ambient soundscape for the player to live in, music for games creates an emotional context for the player to be in.

    Again, while there are similarities between music for film and games, stylistically their function is quite different. Game music's function is specifically geared to create and reflect the emotional state of the player, whereas in film, the music reflects the emotional state of the characters on screen and gives the audience a visceral response to that state.

    How an audio designer approaches each game scene must always be seen through the lens of the player and the environment she is in. The music must immerse the player in the gameplay and not simply describe the scene.

    Where Stems Divide
    One great departure between music for games and music for films is the use of stems. In film, a stem is a sub-mix of each element of the final sound mix for the film, for example, dialogue, sound effects, foley sounds (the post-production sounds that were created, as opposed to the field-recorded ones), and music. In games, a musical score is broken up into sub mixes, or stems, of the score itself. In other words, a composer might write a full orchestral piece for a game, but because of the way the character interacts with the environment, only parts of the score will play at certain points in the character's exploration of the surroundings.

    For instance, there may be a low bass ostinato going on as the character explores a cave, but as soon as he turns a corner and finds a pulsating jewel, the music cross-fades to violins and a harp playing the same cue. Troels Folmann, the composer of Tomb Raider as well as countless movie and game trailers, has developed a methodology called micro-scoring that perfectly describes this procedure. Micro-scoring breaks the score into a variety of smaller parts that are then assembled by the game engine in real time, depending on the player's actions and interactions with the environment. (See the interview with Troels B. Folmann on GSoundtracks.com, for more information.)

    Any current DAW will be able to break out the respective parts of a composition by either bouncing or sub mixing them. Game audio designers might also wind up slicing up these mixes into REX or other similar sliced sample formats so they can control the tempo of the pieces depending, for instance, on whether the character is running, walking, or slowing down.

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